Fire crews are making an unheard-of scramble as a huge number of lightning-sparked wildfires continue to burn across drought-parched regions of Oregon and Washington. One fire in north-central Washington has already caused severe damage, destroying an estimated 150 homes.
According to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, there were 13 large, uncontained fires burning in Oregon as of yesterday, consuming over 494,000 acres. In Washington, seven fires have burned close to 319,000 acres. Nearly 12,800 firefighters and support personnel have been dispatched, and both Washington and Oregon have declared states of emergency.
Carol Connolly, a public information officer for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, said that although the region has dealt with high-acreage fire incidents before, the complexity of having so many scattered across Oregon and Washington at once "is pretty unprecedented."
That means "20 different operations, 20 different fires to get resources to," Connolly said.
Yesterday's National Interagency Coordination Center incident report showed that at least five of these fires have forced evacuation orders, and even more pose a threat to structures and residences.
Peter Goldmark, Washington's commissioner of public lands, said that beyond the challenge in addressing the large number of incidents, "it's also the very adversarial weather conditions that we've found ourselves in."
This year's fire season started early, due to unusual heat and drought conditions, he said. It has already far outstripped the number of acres burned in an average year. In 2013, wildfires in Washington burned over 152,603 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). On Sunday, Washington's Carlton Complex Fire alone grew to nearly 300,000 acres.
"It's a really rough start," Goldmark said.
More thunderstorms on the way
The Carlton Complex Fire, only 2 percent contained as of yesterday afternoon, has so far placed six communities at risk and destroyed 154 homes, according to NIFC.
"It's not just the loss of homes; it's the loss of animals, it's the loss of wildlife," Goldmark said. "It's been a very destructive fire across the entire area."
The Red Cross has set up six different shelters for evacuees. Yesterday, the Okanogan County Sheriff's Office left a post on its Facebook page to residents stating: "If you come home to three ribbons tied on your mailbox, fence post, etc., you're under a Level 3 evacuation. You should evacuate immediately."
One death has also been linked to the fire. According to Reuters, a 67-year-old man died of a heart attack attempting to save his home near Carlton, Wash.
Complicating matters, the Carleton Complex fire has also caused extensive damage to power lines. On Saturday, the Okanogan County Public Utility District reported that the communities of Pateros, Carlton, Twisp and Winthrop and homes in outlying areas were without power. And yesterday, the Okanogan Sheriff's Office reported that the telephone system has been compromised, meaning that some 911 calls were unable to go through.
"Our resources are stretched thin and fire crews are doing everything possible," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said in a statement Sunday that accompanied the announcement of expanded burning restrictions for 20 counties east of the Cascades. "We must take every possible precaution to reduce the risk of additional fires."
But even the best precautions may prove no match for Mother Nature. Most of Oregon and Washington's wildfires were caused by lightning storms over the weekend of July 12, Connolly explained, and there are likely more to come.
"We are expecting significant thunderstorm storm activity to come through central Oregon starting on Tuesday and continuing on Wednesday," Connolly said, adding that forecasters anticipate lightning and gusty winds to increase the risk of more fires.
High-pressure ridge blocks rain
According to Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, the dry conditions currently exacerbating the situation have their origins with the infamous high-pressure ridge that blocked precipitation from reaching California this winter, resulting in the current record-breaking drought.
The ridge extended up into the Pacific Northwest, Svoboda explained. While part of the region received precipitation later in the season, "the overall picture is dry, no doubt about it," he said.
Currently, 94 percent of Oregon is in drought, as well as about half of Washington, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor report.
"Now when you get into a hot, dry period with winds and low relative humidity, it's ripe for fire," Svoboda said.
This level of fire activity is consistent with what the Pacific Northwest may have to contend with more as climate change intensifies. The National Climate Assessment, released this year, stated that warmer and drier conditions have already increased the frequency and intensity of fires in Western forests since the 1970s.
Under a scenario where emissions increase through 2050 and gradually decrease afterward, the assessment predicts that the median area burned each year in the Northwest could quadruple, reaching 2 million acres annually by the 2080s. However, this figure is expected to vary significantly depending on fuel conditions, it said.
Severe fire conditions are also being felt in other regions of North America. Unusually warm and dry weather, also consistent with climate change, has spurred wildfires in well over 2 million acres of Canada's Northwest Territories (ClimateWire, July 16).
California, too, is grappling with an above-average fire season. Speaking to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott said that three years of drought has left fuels on the ground "parched and ripe to burn."
"Southern California has been in continuous fire season since April of last year," Pimlott said. "They are burning with a speed and intensity that we would normally see in the peak of summer or fall."
Reporter Henry Gass contributed.
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